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A Two-Week Tango with Pareto and Parkinson

Help Wanted: Professional Time Manager

Acme Corporation seeks an obsessively scrupulous time manager who will beat himself up constantly about how he spends each minute of his day. Ideally this person will spend more time thinking about time management than actually doing things. He will make sure he is busy with all sorts of activities even if they are neither important nor strategic. He will judge others by his own fluctuating perception of productivity, alternatively praising and demeaning the same activity depending on his mood. Salary will be commensurate with uptightness. Interested applicants may submit resumes to overwhelmed@acme.com.

Maybe it’s just a firstborn thing, but the above job would have been a good fit for me for much of my working career.

As the description implies, I’ve spent a lot (read: too much) time thinking about time management. My wife, bless her heart, could testify that the arrangement of my schedule is one of my favorite topics of conversation. Not exactly the sort of thing that makes for good dates.

About a month ago, in my frustration I decided to solve my overemphasis on time management by revisiting The Four-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss, which in some ways is about, you guessed it, time management. [Insert joke about the book being 416 pages long.] No, I am not writing this post from a hammock. But I thought you might be interested in the last two weeks, in which I hung out with a dead Italian economist and a guy whose name is more associated with a disease than with productivity.

Ferriss’ book is, if nothing else, thought-provoking. Preeminent in the book is his consistent application of two symbiotic principles:

  1. Pareto’s Law: 80% of a system’s outputs come from 20% of its inputs.
  2. Parkinson’s Law: The (perceived) complexity and importance of a task is proportional to the time allotted to complete it.

We may delve into these concepts in future posts, but for now consider this synthesis: pursuant to these principles, Ferriss urges individuals to (1) devote maximum attention to the 20% of activities that demonstrate the most output, and (2) schedule these activities on short deadlines to encourage focus and eliminate wasted time. Ferriss indicates that time management is a dead-end pursuit because busyness represents a failure to prioritize, particularly according to Pareto’s Law. With the right priorities in place, he argues, there is plenty of time.

Coming back from vacation seemed like a perfect time to implement these principles so, with just two weeks remaining in the month, I had myself a little two-week experiment. Could I multiply my productivity in a two-week span and spend less time spinning my wheels? In a word, yes.

The last two weeks have been pretty incredible, really. By applying these two principles I have accomplished more, pushed paper less, reduced email time, more effectively empowered team members, connected with more people, and attacked items that will have cascading effect long into the future. A complete success, right?

Not quite.

What I found through this experiment is that it is good to be productive, but if you can’t “turn off,” you don’t end up in a very good place. Ferriss suggests as much. One of his more interesting observations is that we often busy ourselves with things so we can avoid tasks and situations in which we’re not comfortable. For me, freeing up time is good, but I get uncomfortable with ambiguous challenges, like answering the question, “What should our family do for fun tonight?” It appears that part of my busyness has been an attempt, usually subconscious, to avoid such decision making.

What activities are you doing, or overdoing, that are preventing you from engaging the necessary ambiguity of making disciples?

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